Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Review of The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts

Many readers – male readers that is – say that Shantaram is their favorite book ever. Who would not be captivated by the epic adventures of an Australian bank robber and heroin addict who escapes from prison and travels to India and the tumultuous struggles of life in the Bombay slums? Reading the saga of the swashbuckling protagonist - renamed Shantaram in the opening chapters - as he experiences the local culture and customs of India for over 900 pages, is almost a rite of passage. Although the book is a novel, it is somewhat an autobiography of its colorful author, Gregory David Roberts.

Like many, I waited for the book’s sequel with bated breath for twelve years. Once again, a weighty tome nearly 900 pages long. Yet, my waiting was not rewarded. The Mountain Shadow (Little, Brown Book Group, October 2015), fails to rekindle the excitement that gripped me when first meeting Shantaram.

What happens in the sequel? Shantaram gets on his motorcycle, gets into a fight, smokes a joint, pines for his soulmate, gets into another fight, gets on his motorcycle again, smokes another joint, pines some more for his soulmate. The plot meanders, if there is a plot at all. It all gets quite repetitious, and what’s more, none of it is particularly exciting.

Many of the characters – and there are a lot of them – are familiar from the earlier book, but if they’ve been forgotten over the years, the reader can easily make their reacquaintance. There are new gangsters, mafia chiefs, gurus, detectives, and hired killers to meet as well.

And then there is Karla. Shantaram’s fascination with this Swiss American woman is overplayed. The habit of these two on-again, off-again lovers to throw aphorisms at each other for page after page is particularly annoying. Also, quite irritating is the author’s repeated reference to the ‘queens’ of Karla’s eyes – whatever that means.

That said, there are also memorable aspects to the novel. As in the previous book, we get a very colorful, very spicy taste of India, of the slums of Bombay, of the Indian mafia and the Indian elite. Yet, we can’t escape the feeling that we’ve seen this all before. There are new gangsters on the streets, but they are the same streets we walked on in the first book.

The Mountain Shadow is the second in a planned tetralogy of novels. I’m not sure when the next volume in the series will be published but one thing is for sure. I won’t be waiting for it with bated breath.

Gregory David Roberts is a former heroin addict and convicted bank robber who escaped from Pentridge Prison in 1980 and fled to India, where he lived for ten years. During his second stay in an Australian prison he began writing Shantaram. The manuscript of the novel was reportedly destroyed twice by prison wardens while Roberts was working on it. Ever since the novel's publication there has been talk of a film adaptation but it is not clear if such a project is still in the works.

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